Walking from Fillmore and Hayes, Alamo Square, 6:30 p.m.
I live about four miles from the ocean. Sometimes when the weather is nice, I take my bike out there, to Ocean Beach, which is the end of the world. On certain days, there is nothing more perfect: a sky as blue as you can imagine, a sunset, a fire with friends.
Today, the wind started in earnest about a half-mile away, as I was headed downhill. When I reached the intersection at the Great Highway, pedaling hard to cross the street before the light turned, the sea, churned up with white caps, was a dull, sick green-gray. No soothing ocean smell, no soft crash of wave on shore, only a droning, persistent roar of wind and water.
Two crows picked through a trash pile left beside a blown-out illegal fire pit. Families hunkered down behind sand dunes, bicycles leaning against a sea wall covered in ugly graffiti—no street artists here. The cracked concrete exposed rusted metal rebar. An old man struggled with his Sunday constitutional, a gust plucking his cap from his head. Dirty weeds grew in the cracks between wall and sidewalk, ice plant on the divider covered in road-grime from the Great Highway. The asphalt and concrete had been torn up, orange netting surrounding them, no place for pedestrians to cross.
No shouts of joy, no seagull cries, no thing to love or marvel at. Even the lone kite down the beach was uninviting—a black, winged shark above the waste. I held my backpack against my stomach for warmth, face to the wind and the sea. No place to stop, and read my book, and eat the strawberries I had brought in my pack. Back, across the road, stark windmills, unmoving, stood sentinel.
Two men and a woman passed by, one of them pointing out the smoothness of the sand, the color of the sky. They did not see that the marine layer far across the water promised a windier, colder, foggier night, or that the sand, slippery and fine underfoot, treacherous, flowed across itself, a quiet whispering as the wind blew the grains back against the wall, piling up around corners, burying stairs, erasing my footprints.
Maybe this used to happen in bookstores or record shops, before those became a thing of the past, but here’s something special about coffee shops: There will be a moment where you can look around and there will be people—strangers—all in sync. This generally can only happen when the right song comes on. You see light bulbs go off in five different heads, connecting that well-worn tune to a memory. If you don’t look up at the right time, you’ll miss it. And they may not even know that they’ve connected for this tiny instant.
This happened to me at The Mill yesterday. A brand-new coffee shop on Divisadero and Fulton, The Mill is a Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread joint venture. It’s all white tile and (naturally, this is SF) exposed wood and poured cement floors. An asymmetrical shelving system spans one wall, wood of a deep blond housing beautiful coffee-related items: tea towels, French presses and Chemexes, olive-wood spoons, jars of honey, and, of course, coffee beans.
The façade is red brick with white trim and those great clerestory windows you see—and are often ill-used—on many San Francisco storefronts. There are round, marble-topped tables along one wall, with a big bench and individual seats that are a little reminiscent of classroom chairs. Two window seats flank each side of the door. A long, narrow wooden table runs along the left side. And cantilevered tables jut out along the wall towards the back, overlooking the bread-making and espresso machines.
A wire rack near the counter holds the bread—mountain rye, whole wheat, wonder, country, walnut and cranberry, seed feast. The bread is dark-crusted, with high ears (ridges on the crust caused by scoring the dough; yes, I had to look it up) and perfect dustings of flour or oat. A strong, chewy crust, a soft interior, a tang. I can’t stop eating it. The glass counter holds a few baked goods, but the star here is the toast. There is nothing quite so perfect as coffee and toast. Especially when accompanied by good music (others agree).
Behind the counter, the centerpiece kitchen. Open-plan, with a stunning skylight (you have to go see it; I can’t do it justice), you can sit at one of the cantilevered tables and watch Josey Baker and assistants expertly shape loaves and load them into baskets and buttered tins for rising and baking. Baristas bustle back and forth between the two espresso machines, grinding beans, steaming milk, tamping down the grinds. At the toast station, one or two cooks man the toaster, spreading spreads, sprinkling sugar. It’s fascinating. And it makes me jealous because it seems like they’re always having a ball back there.
I’ve been here (almost) every weekend since The Mill opened in mid-February. Often crowded, it’s still a soothing—and yet energizing—space. And they play the best old-school music. Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, The Doors. Today, they hit a lot of Tom Petty.
In keeping with the Four Barrel philosophy, there are no outlets and no Wi-Fi. This is shared space to interact. Hence the communal table, the open kitchen, and the music just loud enough to make it difficult to drown out with headphones but not so loud that you can’t talk. Even if you’re there on your own, reading—as I often am—you can’t help but look up, see what’s going on around you, appreciate the music for a moment, watch the bustle in the kitchen.
Yesterday, as I read a back issue of Lucky Peach and nursed a cappuccino, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” came on. I looked over at Baker, shaping a boule with a dough scraper. His lips subtly mouthed the lyrics. A barista moved his head to the beat as he made a latte. A tattooed toast-cook rocked out, kitchen cloth over his shoulder. And a customer in the burgeoning line paused, listening, eyes skyward. I looked back over at Baker, and our eyes met. We exchanged huge grins, nodding, as he started to sing. It’s those perfect, synchronous moments. That’s what a coffee shop is for.
Want some good photos of The Mill? Here.
Love The Mill too? Get them a parklet.
So, I’ve never really cared that much about football. Was I excited when Joe Montana visited my high school? Yes. But in that “Oh-a-famous-person-is-here-and-I-go-to-boarding-school-and-nothing-new-happens-ever” kind of way. It was way cooler when Tommie Smith came. (Interestingly, I am noticing on Wikipedia, he was a running back in the AFL.)
Was I also briefly into football when I was embroiled in “Friday Night Lights?” Also yes. But that was mostly Tim-Riggins-related. And for Coach and Tammy, the best couple on television (as my friend Max once said; he’s also bestowed this honor upon Jane and Brad from “Happy Endings.” I agree, by the way).
My feelings about football can be summed up by George Carlin’s monologue from the first-ever episode of “SNL.” (Sidenote: George Carlin in 1975 looked like a cross between Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson today.)
When I was in Ann Arbor a few weekends ago, my friends hunched around a web streaming version of the Ravens-49ers game. I was busy cooking dinner with another friend, Mel (not Gibson), and I had no idea that the outcome would lead the Niners to the Super Bowl. I was mildly excited when it did. I was more excited about the lasagna and chunky lola cookies.
Fast-forward to me returning to SF. Niners pride is on the rise. No one can stop talking about the team–not even hipstery/nerdy/non-athletic types (and websites). Everyone’s cracked out their red and gold gear. It’s hard not to get caught up in all of it, even though I have some concerns about the levels of domestic and gender-based violence, major head trauma, and other issues the NFL faces. To put it mildly.
All the same, a few days ago, I fell briefly in love with the Niners when I read The Rumpus‘ annual “A Superbowl Preview for People Who Don’t Know Football.” A team that made an “It Gets Better” video and an outspoken pro-marriage-equality professional athlete? An underdog backup quarterback (against another unconventional quarterback)? An artist and philanthropist tight end? Hey, this sounded pretty good.
Then, the Niners’ cornerback Chris Culliver made some anti-gay remarks. Then, two other players denied having been in a video supporting LGBT youth. Dan Savage, who started the “It Gets Better” project, was understandably displeased (I look forward to what he has to say on his podcast next week) and pulled the video.
If that wasn’t enough, I subsequently discovered that the Niners would be moving next year from Candlestick Park, located in a struggling neighborhood in SF, 40 miles away to Santa Clara. To be fair, apparently Niners games weren’t bringing the city or the surrounding neighborhoods much revenue. But a new stadium within the city–have you seen how much unused space we have on the drive to and from SFO?–would have been a welcome addition, much as the Giants’ stadium revitalized (some of) the SoMa area. Slate has a pretty good breakdown of that whole mess. Thanks, Gavin Newsom!
And now, we come down to the final point. For some reason, like all humans, we like to riot when we win things. See: Muni bus fire after the Giants win. Despite The Rumpus‘ excellent guide for rioting, SF-style (“We riot in a manner inclusive of people with disabilities”), I don’t particularly understand how a city as laid back as SF finds the rage to do this kind of thing–maybe it’s all pent-up frustration from the hell that is riding Muni every day. And because we have to be so nice all the time. The mayor has asked bars to go easy on the hard liquor (don’t hold your breath, Ed!).
Will I watch on Sunday? Yes. Will I continue to have very mixed feelings about the Niners franchise, the NFL, and professional sports in general? Always. And I’m going to take The Bold Italic’s riot alternatives to heart. I’m opting for interpretive dance, personally. And a well-crafted tweet.
*I’m realizing now that “footieball” was a term used by Dustan Hoffman in “Meet the Fockers.” This, as a whole, makes me sad for Dustan Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, America, and myself. But not for Robert DeNiro. He’s had enough chances.
Although I’m far from getting to every big arena and hidden-gem music joint in the Bay Area, the Fillmore was the last true biggie in San Francisco for me (OK, I haven’t been to the Warwick yet). Last night, I saw Father John Misty and the Walkmen on the first show of a two-night, sold-out series.
The psychedelic posters lining every wall, the miniscule bathrooms and slightly horrifying crush to exit, the free apples for starving hippies all added to the historical power of the venue. There’s some kind of rare electricity in the air. And if you’re lucky, you get a free poster when you leave.
Much of San Francisco is about transience and waves of newcomers and about what happened to previous populations, often once newcomers themselves, when the next people came. These people left indelible marks on the city, even as they were erased themselves.
In the early Second Great Migration years of World War II, African Americans moved into the Western Addition, filling spaces recently emptied of Japanese people forced into internment camps. Much of the black population was in turn driven out and across the Bay. Today, I live in the Western Addition.
My coworker told me that the last Irish bar in the Mission closed while he lived there in the early 90s (when the Mission was the “real” Mission—whatever that means). Now, mostly white young people are shifting the neighborhood’s Latino predominance.
Where did the Italians go, when North Beach was overrun? What happened to the Beatniks who took over—apart from the gnarled few who still rant outside Caffe Trieste? The hippie-looking types on Haight are no flower children.
Our city has boomed with tech and busted flat and is booming up again, much to the chagrin of many. Rents are sky-high, gentrification screeches forward, as tech types are shuttled out and away from the city every morning and shuttled back to eat in restaurants I can’t even afford as, uncomfortable as it is to admit, some kind of nonprofit yuppie. I’m also a part of that gentrification. And it’s not always a bad thing to renew and revitalize blighted neighborhoods, but it’s certainly rarely done right.
Take Valencia Street in the Mission. There are parts of it that I love, and only true curmudgeons would argue that it’s not fun to wander there on a Saturday (I’ve been down there for three separate trips in the past two weekends). But there are more wildly expensive restaurants than anything else, and no hardware store, no big grocery store. It’s not an intentional neighborhood but rather a place held hostage by trend. And it will bust out too. Or transform into another tourist enclave, like North Beach, maybe giving that tired old neighborhood the chance to transform again, as the waves move back out.
For these ebbs, San Francisco can be a difficult place to live. Most of us are not locals (though many are native Californians). We come and go with jobs—I’ve said goodbye to a number of friends and co-workers, and I’ve been here for eighteen months. Perhaps the city is too small to fit all of us (unlike New York, which seems to expand indefinitely to swallow everyone), and once the heat and pressure hit a certain level, the loose ones escape.
As I try to keep my writing here more regular (it’s hard with a full-time job, y’all), I’d like to explore the stories—historical and contemporary—of the people who have lived here and then adapted or faded away. And I wonder, and maybe will start to see, how I’ll have to adapt to stay here. Because I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
Header photo is of a mural in Clarion Alley. The cutout figure depicts that very locale.