Category Archives: Field Notes

A Downside to Living in San Francisco

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This is what I had to Google when I got home today.

Update: The SF “Clean Patrol” was here within one hour of my call to 311. Although city services don’t always function effectively in S.F. (here’s looking at you, Muni), this was an amazing response time. Hats off to the brave soul whose job entails spraying shit off sidewalks. You’re a true American hero.

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On Proper Usages for Coffee Shops | The Mill

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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.

Fog city.

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There’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t been said before (but don’t bring up that misattributed Mark Twain quote again). It’s a constant worry. It creeps up, or it sprints in, or it just settles, or you wake up and it’s there. Anytime, any month, any mood. There’s no such thing as an easy BBQ in the park or a guaranteed vista on a hike. There is only Karl.

It can be cozy and comforting—to be wrapped up in down and hear the horn on the Golden Gate Bridge, tucked away in bed or on a Sunday morning. My love for the foghorn has endured even in my most frustrated moments.

But god can it ever be oppressive. The rotating plaint, fading in and out. It drives my sister crazy.

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We measure time by it, if not seasons. In the Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s Jing-Mei Woo, Chinese-American daughter of a tiger mother before that was a term, tallied the fog horn calls it took her each day to exasperate her mother into abandoning her efforts to make her a child prodigy:

 “I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored I started counting the bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas. The sound was comforting and reminded me of the cow jumping over the moon. And the next day, I played a game with myself, seeing if my mother would give up on me before eight bellows. After a while I usually counted only one, maybe two bellows at most. At last she was beginning to give up hope.”

I get tired of having to wear a scarf and a jacket every single day. I have to plan my bags around how many layers I need to shove into them. I want sundresses and a wallet. I want the certainty that comes with being a southern Californian, that perfect, uniform times aren’t even just ahead—they’ve arrived. Here, summer is a deception and a disappointment.

It means that every moment is fleeting and precious. It means that nothing is certain. It means that you never get effortless days. This is not southern California, where you get mid-70s and blue skies, where it’s guaranteed to be precipitation-free for at least six months of the year. It’s ominous. It’s a mindset.

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It makes us crooked. We get that California chill, and then actual chill. I think it’s why we’re weirder than almost anywhere else in the U.S. (Austin, don’t get upset, and has anyone ever been in the Deep South or the Far North? Cause that shit is next level). We put up with the freaks because we put up with the fog. And we become freaks because of the fog.

It’s always there, on your best days and your worst. It makes the misery a little deeper; it makes the times of sunshine a little brighter. It’s a reminder. It’s a curse. It’s constancy. It’s what we have. It’s what we are. No optimism allowed—we have to snatch our warmth when we can, and keep a weather eye out for its departure.

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Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Page 135. Originally published 1989.

Enter Spring

Last Saturday was San Francisco’s first day of spring.  Although it reached the mid-seventies more than a few times during our (so-called) winter, we endured a bit of a cold, wet spell throughout March and April–I know, Californians suffer so much on account of the weather–so that when a perfectly clear, perfectly warm weekend day came along, everyone put on dresses or shorts, grabbed beers and lawn games, and headed out to the park.  I spent much of Saturday writing in my apartment, which meant that I couldn’t get to my favorite outdoor people watching spot, Dolores Park, with enough time to enjoy the sunshine.  Instead, I headed to Fort Mason: the playground of the Marina set.  It doesn’t quite hold a candle to DoPa, but Fort Mason has its own brand of unbridled ridiculousness.  With views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the downtown area, as well as old military buildings and a community garden, it’s unbelievably picturesque.

I’d planned to spend some time getting my daily allowance of vitamin D and reading some Gary Snyder, which meant that I didn’t tote my camera along. When I got distracted by the surrounding scenes, I had to resort to my iPhone.  All of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 4, Hipstamatic, Adler 9009 Lens, Ina’s 1969 film.  The overexposed, bleached finish of the lens-film combination captured, for me, how the afternoon felt.

Update, 4/27/12: I saw today that Fox ran a story charging that “green activists” “trashed” Fort Mason on “Earth Day.”  SFist has already made the points I’m about to make.  However, since I happened to spend several hours at the park on the 21st and went to the farmer’s market down there on the 22nd, I’d like to set the record straight: The photos Fox took were from April 21st (it was foggy on the 22nd, so no one was out), there was nary an activist to be seen in Fort Mason on April 21st, and Earth Day is April 22nd.  So, A+, Fox, for fact checking.  Keeping it fair and balanced, people.

Field Notes: The Outdoor Music Festival

The crowd pre-Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2011

San Franciscans love their music.  And despite the unpredictable weather–our fog, Karl, even tweets about it–we like to listen to it outside.  Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the prime example of a free, outdoor music festival in SF.  Held every year since 2001 in Golden Gate Park, HSB draws over 750,000 concertgoers over a weekend each fall.  The line-up is always impressive, with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and Emmy Lou Harris (among other bluegrass royalty) performing regularly, as well as less-bluegrassy acts–hence the “hardly.”  I went to HSB last October, and it was well worth the crush of people.

Outside Lands brings a mostly indie line-up to Golden Gate Park at the end of summer; last year, it hauled in an estimated $60 million in revenue for the city, with 180,000 tickets purchased.  And the Treasure Island Music Festival (held, unsurprisingly, on Treasure Island), another indie-ish fest, entices a slightly younger crowd–at least, that’s what a source, who ended up on the wrong side of a puking underage spectator, told me.  The free Stern Grove concert series, which has been running for 75 seasons, brings a slightly older, more staid crowd–with acts ranging from the SF Symphony to Neko Case.

Jerry Garcia street art in the Haight, by grahamc99, CC BY 2.0

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Summer of Love and Sixties rock-n-roll (but only a mention because I want to write about this in depth later).  The Grateful Dead performed numerous outdoor concerts in SF throughout the years, including in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and on Haight Street in 1968.  If you’re ever in Magnolia Brewery on Haight and Masonic, you can see an incredible photo in the bathroom depicting the latter.  Of course, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 (sorry, Wikipedia is the best option) owed their size to the Counterculture’s epicenter in San Francisco.  And the punk scene thrived in the 1980s in an outdoor venue or two:

Stage diver at Rock Against Reagan at the DNC, 1984, in the empty lot between Mission, Howard, 3rd, and 4th Streets. Photo by Keith Holmes, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC SA 3.0.

Which brings us to last Sunday.  Financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman, the founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, passed away in December 2011.  HSB held a free tribute concert for him out at Ocean Beach, closing down the Great Highway so that a number of incredible musicians could perform in his honor.  After a decadent brunch at Magnolia, I found myself wandering the Haight aimlessly, until a quick Twitter scan reminded me of the event and sent me, rushing and scatter-brained, to Fulton Street for the number 5 Muni.  I disembarked at the Pacific Ocean to a huge crowd swaying to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  I stayed for the rest of their set, Boz Scaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show before heading home (I had more bluegrass to see that evening at Cafe du Nord).  It could hardly have been a better day, with a few wisps of cloud, enough sunshine to keep the wind chill bearable, and a calm, respectful crowd celebrating Mr. Hellman through the music he loved best.

Besides the music, the best part of big concerts is the people watching.  I jotted down a few field notes while sitting on the double yellow line in the middle of the Great Highway.  Based on these observations and others from around the city, here’s what you’ll find at a typical San Francisco music festival:

  • Hippies – the old and new kind.  There’s a difference, and it’s not always based on age.
  • Ex-hippies.  You just know when you see them.
  • Homeless people.
  • People who dress like they’re homeless.
  • Surfers, skaters, and their ilk.
  • Girls who dress like Penny Lane (guilty as charged).
  • Girls who think they dress like Penny Lane (ditto).
  • SWPL white people, and, goes without saying for this demographic, Patagonia apparel (guilty verdict continues).
  • People from the 1990s.
  • People from the 1890s.
  • Bicycles and dogs and strollers and coolers (oh my!).
  • Red-cheeked, blue-eyed children who are cuter than your current/future kids will ever be.
  • People who are taller than me.
  • Drugs and alcohol, cleverly concealed or not at all.
  • Piercings, obscure tattoos, and carefully sculpted facial hair (Bonus: dreadlocks).
  • Everyone else.  While traveling to an outdoor music venue, you can always pick out certain concertgoers based on their attire.  Upon arrival, however,  you’ll find that those regular-looking people you saw on Muni, the ones who look like they’d never be caught dead in whatever scene the concert line-up represents, were headed in the same direction, and now they’re passing a joint and rocking out with the weirdos.  They’re my favorite, hands down.

The place was jammed on Sunday.  It wasn’t until 7×7 released photos yesterday that I could even see what the artists had looked like–after Gillian Welch kept mentioning her rhinestones, I knew I was missing something.  But really, it’s about the music anyway, and I wasn’t disappointed to have skipped elbowing my way through thousands of people for a glimpse.   I’d’ve had to show up at 8AM to have a good vantage point; even a few rows back at general admission shows, all I can see are shoulder blades.  I opted instead to sit towards the back and let the music drift over me, where things were the calmest and least crowded.  The highlight for me was Old Crow Medicine Show, who put on a hell of a set.  One standout song?  A beautiful cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

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Video via SFist.