Category Archives: Stories


One of the beauties of San Francisco is that you can always escape.  More car friendly than New York, though nowhere near as ensconced in driving culture as Los Angeles, SF will always offer up a friend or two with a vehicle.  This will be required for Ikea runs, flea marketing, and those times when you absolutely, immediately, must get out.  Apart from quick hops across the Golden Gate Bridge–Sausalito, Muir Woods, or Mt. Tamalpais–and a few other choice locales, San Francisco is close enough to the Sierra Nevada for a sustained trip away from whatever it is about urban living that has you down.  Yosemite and Tahoe are two of my favorites, especially with half-day-plus driving times from Southern California now shortened to a manageable jaunt for the weekend.

I’ve been reading The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and exploring Gary Snyder’s work over the past month, yearning, I think, for the wild.  One of the things that has most struck me was Kerouac’s struggle to remain a dedicated student of Buddhism while being a focal point of the Beat scene.  He describes sitting outside all night, meditating in nature, and then chugging wine, using drugs, and womanizing on the same page (1)*.  Throughout, he finds purity in nature and excitement in the city but is never able to commit to one or the other.  Reading the book today, it is an inescapable fact that Kerouac died of cirrhosis ten years after its publication.  For Kerouac, life was a search for balance that was anything but level.

I think most people who live in cities face a similar struggle: yearning for the calm that comes with a rural life but unable or unwilling to give up the things that make city living so spectacular.  3AM bacon wrapped hot dogs in the Mission.  Live music seven days a week.  Museums and their cultural ilk.  People everywhere, all the time, doing interesting things.  The solution?  Get out.  Just for a bit.  Just for a day.  I headed out to Truckee last weekend for just such a reason.  As well as a friend’s birthday.  Like Kerouac, I felt the pull between simplicity and decadence, slipping away for a walk in the snow or reading by the fire and then drinking beers all night, yelling and hooting.

Short historical detour: Truckee is near Donner Lake, the site of the infamous Donner Party tragedy.  This was one of my favorite stories as a child, as I was obsessed with the Oregon Trail, Western history and mythology, and anything even remotely morbid.  Setting out from Independence, Missouri, in April 1846, members of what would become the Donner Party made a fatal error when they decided to take a shortcut in Utah, called Hasting’s Cutoff, that actually added 125 miles to their route.  They lost two months, much of their livestock and supplies, and the cohesiveness of their group before reaching Truckee (now Donner) Lake on November 3, 1846 (2).

Donner Memorial, California

The Donner Memorial near Truckee. The pedestal is as high as the record snows of 1846-1847: 22 feet (see source #1). Photo by nicksarebi, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Winter snows thwarted the pioneers from crossing the high mountain passes, and they returned to a lone cabin at Donner Lake.  They settled in two groups, one next to the lake and the others a few miles away at Alder Creek, hoping their meager supplies would hold until the snow melted enough to make the climb.  This would not be the case.  As food dwindled, a group of fifteen on snowshoes calling themselves “Forlorn Hope” set out from the encampments on December 16 to try to reach help over the mountains (3).  Beset by snowstorms and low on food and clothes, they began “casting lots” to see who would give his or her life to sustain the others.  Men began dying before this was necessary–for a time (4).  After several pioneers died and were eaten, the two American Indian guides sent from Sacramento by John Sutter to help the group were most likely murdered for food.  On January 17, the seven Forlorn Hope survivors staggered into Johnson’s Ranch on the western side of the Sierra: five women and two men, all white.  They brought news of the trapped party in the mountains, galvanizing rescue efforts.  In all, it took four attempts to reach and rescue the members of the Donner Party.  With each foray into the mountains, rescue teams found the “grisly remains of cannibalism” at both sites near Donner Lake.  Only half of the 80-odd people who made it to Donner Lake survived the winter months in the Sierra (3).  The story of the Donner Party is one of the most famous of the pioneer period, and a horrifying account of what human beings can do to survive.  It is also the Truckee area’s claim to fame, and it seems that every other business or landmark is named for the hapless travelers.

Places like Truckee are imbued with their frontier past, which is as romanticized as you might expect.  Western-style false facades line the main street, with covered promenades that feel on the verge of a High Noon confrontation.  Nearby locales include Soda Springs and Lake of the Pines, names that feel pulled from a folk song or tall tale: the places where Paul Bunyan had an egg cream the size of a swimming pool and took a bath, using a whole conifer for a hairbrush.  Truckee is also stunningly beautiful, especially in several feet of fresh snow.  The wind really does sigh or sough through the trees.  Everything smells a bit like woodsmoke, with that clean, alpine sharpness that can’t be properly described.  There is nothing quite like starlight on snowy pines.  Although it is not rugged, Truckee is place to come find tranquility and a little equilibrium.

Which is why I retreated from group activities here and there: to take a moment and breathe.  On one such occasion, I took a walk out among the cabins and trees in our neighborhood.  Almost everyone was holed up or out skiing, and it was dead quiet, apart from a few children sledding, a chattering squirrel or two, and the creak of snow falling from the pines.  I kept hearing a rhythmic cry or rusty creak.  I wasn’t sure if it was an animal or some unknown snow or skiing machinery–maybe a lift.  After all, I’m fairly ignorant of what happens in places where snow falls.  On the way up, I nervously Googled how to drive in ice or snow, which was not on the driving test in Southern California.  Casting about, I finally found the source: vees of geese, migrating.  With the weather so warm this winter, it was unclear whether they were headed north or south.  It was one of the most beautiful and tranquil things I’ve ever seen.

Truckee Geese from Julia Robinson on Vimeo.



(1) Kerouac, Jack.  The Dharma Bums.  New York: Penguin Books, 1991. The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958. *As his accounts of “yabyum” allege, other Buddhist peers may have had a different opinion about what is or is not “pure” or acceptable in one’s practice.  At the same time, many religious leaders and scholars criticized Kerouac’s ignorance of Zen and other Buddhist tenets after the book was published–which should be a surprise to no one who has read The Dharma Bums.

(2) McCurdy, Stephen A.  “Epidemiology of Disaster: The Donner Party (1846-1847).”  Western Journal of Medicine, April 1994: Vol. 160, No. 4, 338-342. Web PDF.  9 March 2012.  This is a fascinating short article about the demographics of who survived (and died) in the Donner Party.  For example, women, who have lower daily calorie needs and higher fat stores, had a higher survival rate.  Obviously (which is not discussed in this article), not being of Caucasian descent carried the extra risk of dying from unnatural causes.

(3) Johnson, Kristin.  “Donner Party Chronology.”  New Light on the Donner Party, 2006.  Web.  9 March 2012.  Despite some much-publicized, sketchy scholarship in 2010 alleging that the Donner party did not engage in cannibalism, it seems pretty clear that it did happen.

(4) “Distressing News.”  The California Star, 13 February 1847.  Via the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.  9 March 2012.



The Bold Italic published a piece this week debunking (or confirming) several well-known San Francisco stories.  For example, there’s no documentary evidence that Mark Twain actually said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  That doesn’t mean he didn’t say it, only that it can’t be proved.  There really are more dogs than children in the city, 120,000 to 108,000, as of 2010.  I’ve known this for a while, but Coit Tower, built with funds from Fire Department enthusiast Lillie Hitchcock Coit, was not meant to look like a fire hose nozzle.  In weirder Coit Tower mythology, my dad told me that he had thought for a long time that the tower was built to dry fire hoses (I guess you hang them out the upper windows?).  I’m not sure where he picked that one up.  Finally, my favorite so far, was that a woman was barred from boarding a bus because she had a live chicken, and animals are not allowed on Muni.  So she snapped the chicken’s neck and climbed on.  The author could not find any evidence to corroborate this urban legend, which may have spawned the “Dirty 30” moniker for the Muni line of that name (though, honestly, the 30 doesn’t need chicken killers to be termed dirty) and that the author called “rife with racist undertones” (the woman was Chinese).  Two commenters insisted that they were firsthand witnesses to the chicken killing.  Since we all know that Internet commenters are the most reliable of sources, this must be the truth.  I’ve seen some pretty messed up stuff on Muni, including a girl fight that resulted in hair extensions all over the floor.  My sister saw someone light a Muni seat on fire.  So in my own opinion, I would be in no way surprised if someone had killed a chicken to board the bus.  It’s actually pretty radass.

A college friend, Merrell, has been traveling the West Coast for the last couple of weeks and documenting her experiences here.  She has lovely photos of SF and around and discovered some cool things–like the fly fishing ponds at Golden Gate Park (who knew?) and the “casual house in Pacific Heights” that is almost directly across from my apartment (no, I do not live in a mansion).

We take our locavore foodstuffs pretty seriously around here.  In the (in)famous Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan details wandering through “acrid and trash-strewn wetlands” under the San Mateo Bridge to gather local, Bay Area salt for his hunted and gathered meal at the end of the book.  He came home with plastic soda bottles full of gray water from the salt ponds and attempted to harvest the salt on his own through boiling, which resulted in brown crystals “a bit greasy to the touch [that] tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag.”  What he acknowledges and what I learned this week is that salt harvesting is much more involved process, and it happens right here in the Bay.  The Kitchn took a trip out to see the Diamond Crystal Salt’s harvesting ponds, the only solar salt producer in the US.  It takes about five years for salt to go from sea water to the table, including removing all of the tag-along chemicals that Pollan found (rightly) nauseating.  Via Scoutmob.

Did you know that there’s a cabin in downtown San Francisco?  It’s hanging on the side of a building at 447 Bush Street and was built by Californian artists Jenny Chapman  and Mark A. Reigelman II (commissioned by Southern Exposure, which is also the name of a delicious drink at the Alembic).  SoEx calls it “both homage to the romantic spirit of the Western Myth and a commentary on the arrogance of Westward expansion.”  I wonder how long til some realtor is charging $2,000/month for a “charming, rustic studio in a prime downtown location.”  That’d be true SF-style Manifest Destiny.

This has been making the rounds for a while, but it makes me so proud to live in a city where the police department created an “It Gets Better” video.  There is so much hate in this country right now.  Thank you to the SFPD for their leadership in supporting universal equal rights and tolerance.



The header photo is of my friend Grace walking the labyrinth at Land’s End.  She blogs here sometimes.

Safeway Safeway

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

-Allen Ginsberg, America

I was driving around the northern end of town this week, buying groceries piecemeal (each supermarket holding the key to some, never all, of the random ingredients I may need on a weekly basis), and stressing, as always, about what to write.  I hadn’t done enough research on labor art in San Francisco to feel comfortable with a post, I was deeply immersed in the Beats but didn’t want to go double or nothing on that front, and Sir Francis Drake warranted, I thought, a trip out to the Marin Headlands for photos.  Around two o’clock, I wandered into the Marina Safeway for that last pesky item: a lemongrass stalk.  And I walked out with a story.

The Marina Safeway is known in San Francisco lore as “Singles Safeway” or “Dateway,” and it is, according to many, the best place for heterosexuals of a certain type to shop for both produce and a date.  Immortalized by Armistead Maupin (just read the books already; you’ll learn so much), Dateway is where the Marina set goes to get down.  When they’re not in the Triangle, of course.  In Tales of the City, Maupin sends a new-to-the-city and very reluctant Mary Ann Singleton  to the “Social Safeway” at the insistence of her heart-of-gold, good-time-having friend, Connie:

“Safeway, dink.  As in supermarket.”

“That’s what I thought you said.  You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”

“For your information, dink, Social Safeway just happens to be…well, it’s just the…big thing, that’s all.”

“For those who get off on groceries.”

“For those who get off on men, hon.  It’s a local tradition.  Every Wednesday night.  And you don’t even have to look like you’re on the make.” (1)

Maupin’s first installment of the serialized Tales of the City (in the Chronicle) was published in 1976, so Dateway has been around since the mid 70s at least.  The Marina Safeway was opened in 1959 and is the definitive design for the “Marina style” of Safeway supermarkets that were built over the next decade: an arched entrance, with full windows on the front (2).  The Marina style feels a bit mega-church-y, and given Americans’ relationship with food, I’d say that’s an apt sentiment.  The east side of the building features a beautiful four-panel mosaic by John Garth that depicts food cultivation and its transportation from around the world to the Marina Safeway.  It’s worth a look if you happen to be around Fort Mason (if we’re putting this in Michelin Green Guide speak, it’d be one star: interesting but not worth a diversion or a trip).

A favorite detail from Garth's mosaic: it encapsulates so much era-appropriate exoticism. And notice the Safeway logo on the bag? Details, my friends.

Many Bay Area publications have covered the Dateway scene, with young, mostly female writers going “undercover” to glean the truth about this mythical place.  Beth Spotswood from the SF Gate describes a supermarket full of good-looking young people in expensive workout clothes and a few old codgers focused on punishing express check-out rule breakers, of whom she was one (3).  That sounds about right.  Heather Smith of the SF Bay Guardian puts Dateway on a level with the city’s alternative cultures: “San Francisco has a reputation for bathhouses, orgies, people in latex flogging each other, and Safeway pickups […]” (4).  Given the Marina’s vanilla status (in comparison with the rest of SF), I consider that high praise.  After searching for dates at other local Safeways, Violet Blue theorizes:

Maybe the Marina Safeway was built over the site of an Ohlone sex cult or the former location of an exceedingly decadent Barbary Coast brothel, and the spirits of rowdy sailors, bawdy babes in breeches and corsets and hard-up fortune seeking prospectors fondle the cantaloupes and caress the canned peaches at midnight (5).

I can say from my own anthropological observations that most of this is true.  On the occasions when I’ve gone in the evening, I’ve watched more than a few pick-ups (never me; I don’t linger in the produce section or own any Lululemon).  It’s sort of unbelievable to hear that one of the prime date-getting spots in town is a grocery store–until you see it with your own eyes.  Sometimes I want to bring popcorn.  However, I do most of my grocery shopping in the late morning or early afternoon, which brings in a different demographic entirely: the much older Marina retiree holdouts, remnants of a different culture.  They’re octogenarians, mostly, and I stick out.  I help reach for things on shelves (this is beyond laughable; I’m 5’2) and nod politely during check-out conversations about how I must be the same age as a grandson–which, I’m thinking, brings the Dateway experience to a whole new level.

I love the sexualized milkmaid, the dog sledding, the Brawny Man double, and the suit approving the strawberries. I wonder whether this mural was a subtle pro-worker, pro-Third-World-ism statement or a true celebration of American capitalism and neo-colonialism.

It was one of those check-out line conversations, however, that inspired this post.  After drawing me into a mutual rant about those renegades who Break The Rules In The Express Line (I’m 80 years old at heart, get off my lawn, etc.), a very nice older gentleman launched into a few stories about the Marina Safeway and his experiences in the city.  A former Marina resident who now lives in “the Avenues” (the Western, residential expanse of the city), he ended up in San Francisco “by accident.”  After fighting in Korea, he landed in the city (along with a lot of other recent vets; I’ll write about the effect of returning soldiers on the city another time) and longed to stay for a few days.  Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t pay for his return ticket unless he left for home immediately, and so SF was put on hold.  Years later, he traveled to Los Angeles and rented a car to visit a relative in San Francisco.  Driving off the 280 into the city, he saw a cable car coming over the hill and “that was it” (6).

He also talked about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s first visit to the United States in September 1959.  The visit was the result of a diplomatic snafu, and Eisenhower could not rescind his invitation once accepted (the visit was supposed to be contingent on a deal over West Berlin that never materialized, but that part of the invitation was omitted inadvertently).  San Francisco was among the places that Khrushchev selected to tour; his request to visit Disneyland, however, was denied.  At almost every turn, Khrushchev asserted: “We have it better in the Soviet Union,” apart from hot dogs and the baggage lockers at Union Station in Washington, DC (7).


Nikita Khrushchev pets a prize Holstein in Beltsville, MD, with Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, via USDAgov's Flickr page, CC BY 2.0.

My check-out line acquaintance, however, told me a bit more.  While in SF, Khrushchev was supposed to view the brand-new Marina Safeway–a paragon of American plenty, efficiency, and affluence.  The place was dusted, scrubbed, and arranged to put capitalism in its best light: my acquaintance went there to shop a few days later, and “everything was immaculate.”  Sensing a “put-up job, (and maybe it was),” Khrushchev scrapped the visit, making an unscheduled stop at an unprepared supermarket down on the Peninsula instead.  The mere sight of the car-filled parking lot was enough for Khrushchev to admit that “we were ahead” of the USSR (6).  True or not, when he returned to Soviet Russia a few weeks later, Khrushchev landed in Vladivostok and announced that the Eastern Russian city would be built up and developed, made into “our San Francisco” (8).  Something must’ve made an impression.

(1) Maupin, Armistead.  Tales of the City.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1978.  Print. Page 14.

(2) Unfortunately, the most legitimate source I could find for this was Wikipedia’s entry on Safeway, Inc.; however, the “Marina-style” term appears to be in use in various places on the Internet.

(3) Spotswood, Beth.  “I Got in a Fight at the Marina Safeway.”  SF Gate, 7 March 2007.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(4) Smith, Heather.  “Strangers in the Night: Bars, Cheap Sex, and Boozy Anthropology.”  SF Bay Guardian, 16-22 June 2004: Vol. 38, No. 38.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(5) Blue, Violet.  “Shopping for Sex at the Supermarket.”  SF Gate 6 July 2007.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(6) Anonymous man at Safeway.  Personal interview, notes.  San Francisco: 15 February 2012.

(7) Stewart, Alison.  “‘K Blows Top:’ Reliving Khrushchev’s American Tour.”  Weekend Edition, NPR News, 21 June 2009.  Audio and Web.  More on Khrushchev’s displeasure at being barred from Disneyland here.  Bonus photo: Cosmonaut Gherman Titov at the Marina Safeway in 1962.

(8) Filatova, Irina.  “Vladivostok: Khrushchev’s San Francisco.”  The Moscow Times, date unknown.  Web.  16 February 2012.  Although I could not find the date for this piece, I assume, based on comments below the article and on the subject, that it was published in late 2011.