Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Francisco and The Garden

Mary in her backyard.
Mary and I are sitting in her backyard. Her cat is nearby, watching the birds and the bugs do their thing. This is Mary's favorite place. She chose the apartment attached to it because of the yard and the opportunity for relaxation that it would bring.

Mary just recently moved in to the building. Like most people living in San Francisco, she has had to make sacrifices in order to get what she needs in her living situation. In this case, Mary has given up a kitchen in favor of a back yard. As I sit in the middle of it and look around and listen to the birds, I think that it was a wise decision.

"This is my favorite place because it is quiet, and green, and safe. I'm in a place right now where I just want to get out of the city. I'm really tired of all the people, all the noise, and looking at buildings all the time. I have been here for 20 years. At a different time, I would have picked something different for my favorite place, maybe a bar or something. Now, my backyard is where I come to most of the time. It's been a little sanctuary for me."

Mary is beautiful, and looks a bit like Robin Wright. She has worked as a waitress all her life, and is a recovering alcoholic. Her manner of conversation is direct and her voice is deep. I can't tell if it is altered because she just woke up, if she smoked at one time, or if she has always had a naturally lovely and deep voice. She talks about her yard as if she is relieved to be in it.

"When I moved here, the buzz word for me was "safety". I was eliminating people out of my life I didn't want anymore, and I just came out of a bad relationship and I just felt shattered. I needed total comfort and safety. I found that here. I also knew this was the right place because of my cat. The last yard I had, I couldn't get my cat to go out there. There was just something about that yard that she didn't like. The first time I came out here, she came right outside with me. She's been outside more here than she has in her whole life. She's six."

Mary and I discuss the costs of living in San Francisco, and I mention that almost everyone I have talked to has had to sacrifice something in order to live in the city. Mary is not different. She has had many different living situations over the twenty years she has lived in San Francisco. Each choice she has made has reflected her changing values.

"You have your list of things of what you must have, a garden became part of it for me. But, I don't have a kitchen. I use his kitchen,(her landlord's), which is upstairs. It's good because he does not eat properly. Now that I cook for both of us, he eats a lot better. I actually do value a kitchen. It is a sacrifice I made to explore living by myself. I have always had a roommate in San Francisco because it is really expensive to live on your own, but my landlord is talking about a kitchenette in my room, which is great, because carrying things up and down the stairs gets a bit tiring."

We sit in the quiet of her backyard and look around. There are birds, squirrels, and all manner of other creatures buzzing about. It is amazing to me that this bit of space can be so big for someone, but as I look across the yard at Mary, she seems at peace. I think back to all the times I have been riding or walking around San Francisco, all the days I have counted how many times I hear sirens, (27 was the high in a span of five days), and how often I have smelled urine on the streets. It dawns on me that the size of the space in not all that important. Mary tells me that the gigantic Redwood in her yard is one of only three in the Mission district.

"This Redwood, here, has all kinds of birds, bugs and squirrels that run around on it. There is so much life back here. With the garden, I think more seasonally now. I plan what I will plant in the Spring, Summer and Fall. A big part of why I moved here was for the opportunity to garden. I'm interested in learning more. I have already grown some beans and herbs." 

After listening to Mary talk about her yard and all that she gets from it, I assume she has found her place in the city. Of course, as is usually the case when I assume anything about anyone, I am dead wrong. I can barely get out the question about staying in San Francisco before she is answering it.

"I am ready to get out. I don't want to move too far, about forty minutes north. I want to be close enough so that I can get back into the city for the punk shows. I am thinking Petaluma and the surrounding area. There are a lot of farmers there, growing organically, and there is a big agricultural niche out there; people making cheese and other really interesting food things going on. I would love to do something with plants. I don't know what it is, but I just discovered I am so happy when I am working with plants. I need to make that bigger in my life. I am really attached to San Francisco, I am just tired. I want to see more trees than buildings." 

Since I have been in San Francisco, I have picked up on this vibe. It is not the laid-back-casual vibe I used to hear about, but the worn-out-exhausted vibe I hear from so many who have lived in this city for any amount of time. I am not sure whether it is living in San Francisco, living beyond your means or, rather, living within your means and without a kitchen that would do that to you. Whatever it is, this is a great city. I can't imagine so many people being willing to give up so much and have it not be the case.

On my way out, Mary gives me some peas from her garden. The crunchy sweetness is refreshing, and as I crunch, I can tell she is proud of them. There is something incredibly satisfying about eating food that someone has cared for. Being able to do that for yourself speaks of an independence many people don't ever experience. Being able to do it in a city like San Francisco seems just short of miraculous.

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